Lance Cooper receives Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring Award

Siv Schwink

Associate Head for Graduate Programs and Professor S. Lance Cooper has been awarded the 2018 Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring Award of the Office of the Provost at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

One of the Campus Awards for Excellence in Instruction conferred annually at the campus’s Celebration of Teaching Excellence, this accolade recognizes sustained excellence in graduate student mentoring; innovative approaches to graduate advising; major impact on graduate student scholarship and professional development; and other contributions in the form of courses and curricula, workshops, or similar initiatives. Cooper was presented with the award on April 12, 2018.

Department Head and Professor Dale Van Harlingen nominated Cooper for the award. He comments, “I have known Lance for more than 30 years, first as an outstanding graduate student in our department, then as a faculty leader in our top-rated condensed matter physics program, and most recently as our associate head for graduate programs. Lance exemplifies the best that Illinois has to offer to ensure our graduate students’ success, through his individual mentoring, through his thoughtful development of supportive programs and activities, through the personal interest he shows to each of our students, and in the superb faculty role model that he represents.”

Over the past 27 years, Cooper has successfully mentored a large number of graduate students as a doctoral advisor. Every one of his students who has graduated published multiple impactful papers as a graduate student, including at least one first-author paper. And each one secured a meaningful appointment after graduation. Cooper’s students have gone on to make important contributions in industry, government, and academic positions.

Illinois Physics PhD alumnus Taylor Byrum, a thesis student of Cooper who now works as an engineer at Texas Instruments, fondly remembers the camaraderie in Cooper’s lab group, fostered by a weekly lunch date for the whole group on Cooper and holiday parties at Cooper’s home. Byrum stresses, Cooper’s door was always open to him, and Cooper always treated him as a research colleague rather than as a student:

"I am extremely fortunate to have had Lance as my advisor and mentor. Despite serving in multiple roles with all their responsibilities and stresses, Lance always found time to invest in me. I know he did the same with other graduate students as well, even ones who were not in his research group. This generosity does not go unnoticed by students.”

When he was appointed associate head in 2011, Cooper extended that career-minded mentoring, providing annual advising for all ≈300 graduate students in the department. For each first-year student, Cooper provides an hour of one-on-one academic advising two weeks prior to the start of the first semester, ensuring each student is enrolled in the courses appropriate to their level of preparedness for graduate studies.

Cooper is a strong advocate on campus for diversity in scientific fields and has proposed a new admissions paradigm that supports enrollment and retention of women and of Hispanic and African-American students, not just in physics, but in all STEM fields, by weighting proven willingness to work and past academic performance more heavily than GRE scores. Cooper currently serves on the Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion at the College of Engineering; and he is a co-principal investigator of the Sloan University Center of Exemplary Mentorship, a program funded by the Sloan Foundation that aims to increase recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities in advanced degree programs in STEM fields.

In the department, Cooper actively creates a welcoming culture of inclusion among graduate students. He has given several workshops on micro-aggressions and LGBTQ issues in the sciences. In 2017, when the department enrolled a deaf graduate student, he gave a workshop on “deaf culture awareness” for faculty members and grad students. In his time as associate head, the number of female graduate students enrolled at Illinois Physics increased from 13 percent to 25 percent.

Cooper has thoughtfully developed numerous initiatives that support professional development of Illinois Physics graduate students. Among these, Cooper co-teaches a graduate student orientation course with Celia Elliott, the department’s primary grants coordinator. Required for all incoming students, the course exposes students to the broad range of ongoing research programs in the department and in related fields. It also covers topics vital to a success in the doctoral program and beyond, including scientific ethics, public speaking, scientific writing, and journal article preparation.

Cooper works with graduate students in one of his labs.
Cooper works with graduate students in one of his labs.
In 2012, Cooper initiated a Career Seminars Series for physics graduate students, inviting PhD alumni from industry and academia to return and talk about their career trajectories and how a PhD in physics prepared them for success. Grad students get the opportunity to have lunch with or to meet with the guest speakers.

In 2014, Cooper initiated a summer internship program with two local companies in the finance and tech industries, allowing five to seven graduate students each year to get hands-on research experience in the private sector. Cooper also created a travel grant program, enabling graduate students to attend professional conferences to build their professional networks.

Cooper also organizes an annual workshop for graduate students applying to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program—in addition to workshops for students preparing for their preliminary exams or thesis defenses.

Cooper additionally works closely with graduate-student groups in the department, including the student-led Guidance for Physics Students (GPS) and Graduate Peer Mentoring (GPM) groups. He also writes a graduate student blog, keeping all Illinois Physics graduate students informed about special opportunities and upcoming deadlines.

Current Illinois Physics graduate student Daniel Inafuku, who studies atomic, molecular, and optical physics with Professor Virginia Lorenz, has benefitted directly from Cooper’s mentoring and advising. Now in his third year, Inafuku has met with Cooper regularly for advice on course schedules, his research program, and to discuss his career goals. Inafuku says Cooper’s mentoring has propelled him toward timely completion of his degree and helped him to secure a 2017 NSF Graduate Student Fellowship.

Inafuku shares, "Dr. Cooper has been instrumental in my development as a graduate student and in that of my peers. Although I have experience with only one department here, I know that his concern for and management of the needs of the Illinois Physics graduate students are without equal here on campus. I cannot think of a better recipient of this award than him."

The last recipient of this award from the Department of Physics was David W. Hertzog in 1997.

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